Is bitcoin a bubble? Maybe. Maybe not. Only time will tell. But there are some small publicly traded companies trying to ride the wave of cryptocurrency and blockchain mania that look pretty sketchy. Call them the bitcons if you will.
The Securities and Exchange Commission suspended trading Tuesday of The Crypto Company until January 3, citing "concerns regarding the accuracy and adequacy of information" about compensation paid to promote the firm and plans for insider sales.
The Crytpo Company describes itself as a business that "offers a portfolio of digital assets, technologies, and consulting services to the blockchain and cryptocurrency markets" with plans for a "rollout of a full scale, high frequency cryptocurrency trading floor."
Shares of The Crypto Company have surged nearly 160% in the past five days, more than 1,800% in the past month and 17,000% in the past three months, as investors and traders have bid up the price of bitcoin higher and higher.
That stunning rise has lifted the company's market value to more than $11 billion. To put that in perspective, that's higher than the market value of well-known brand name companies like Macy's, The New York Times and Under Armour.
The SEC move comes shortly after The Crypto Company announced plans to split its stock 10-1 to try and push the price lower and make it more affordable for average investors.
Shares had surged to a price of $575 before the SEC suspended trading. A 10-1 split would have increased the number of total shares by a factor of ten and lowered the price to $57.50. So the value of the company would not have changed.
The Crypto Company CEO Mike Poutre said in a release about the split that the company wanted to "see orderly market activity" for the stock and added that the split was "the responsible thing to do."
He noted that many blue chip companies, including MasterCard and Apple, have done stock splits to keep their prices more accessible to mom and pop investors.
Poutre also referred to "the euphoria" surrounding bitcoin, and added that "we want people to pay attention to the business we are building, not the hype of a stock or the cryptocurrency world."
The Crypto Company was not immediately available for comment about the SEC action.
But the SEC has taken steps lately to crack down on potential frauds and scams surrounding bitcoin and other digital currencies, particularly with initial coin offerings or ICOs. With an ICO, a company sells a digital currency or token to investors instead of stock.
Several cryptocurrency executives are nervous about the industry getting a bad reputation too.
Brad Garlinghouse, CEO of Ripple, a company that developed the Ripple XRP cryptocurrency and also works to license blockchain technology with banks, says he wants to cooperate with agencies like the SEC to weed out bad actors.
"Many of the ICOs are more frauds than real businesses. The industry needs to work with regulators and not be in the shadows," he said. "ICOs are taking advantage of grey areas in securities law. What worries me the most is some of the hype in the system."
Jalak Jobanputra, partner with venture capital firm Future\Perfect Ventures and an investor in cryptocurrency tech firms, agrees. She said that there is "a lot of speculation" in the crypto area and that she "welcomes scrutiny from the SEC."
Still, there are signs that investors aren't listening to these warnings.
Another small financial tech company that just went public called LongFin has skyrocketed from a low of $4.69 a share in the past week to a high of $142,82 after it announced it was buying a blockchain microlending company named Ziddu.com
And then there's Riot Blockchain, a company that up until recently was a biotech firm and has decided to get into the crypto business. Its stock is up more than 300% in the past month and 1,200% this year.
Mike O'Rourke, chief market strategist with JonesTrading, wrote in a report that this reminded him clearly of the dotcom and tech stock mania of the late 1990s. That did not end well for investors chasing the most speculative of stocks.
O'Rourke pointed out that one widely hyped business-to-business software company called Commerce One went public in 1999 at $21 a share and surged to around $1,000 by the end of the year. Commerce One filed for bankruptcy five years later.
Now this is not to say that bitcoin itself is a bubble. There is a real trend towards digital payments using blockchain technology.
After all, many of today's tech leaders, such as Amazon, Apple and Microsoft, survived the dotcom crash and are now doing better than ever. But investors need to be careful and not chase tiny companies trying to ride the wave.
The talk of a future where we're all using bitcoin instead of paper currencies may be a little far-fetched too.
Digital currencies have a role to play with reducing customer friction and increasing transaction times," said Ripple's Garlinghouse, who was a former exec at AOL and Yahoo -- which are now both owned by Verizon.
"But government-backed fiat currencies aren't going away. Banks aren't going away. The dollar still works well and is efficient," Garlinghouse added.
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